"Different men are moved or left cold by lines according to the difference in their natures,” wrote Robert Henri. “What moves you is beautiful to you." Born June 24, 1865, Henri found women dancers moving in their beautiful, graceful movements and bodily freedom. Henri and the several other of The Eight artists found the modern dance style of Isadora Duncan especially intriguing. (John Sloan painted a portrait of Duncan in action in 1911.) Throughout his career, Henri painted many dancers, but one dancer—Betalo Rubino—captured his imagination the most as a model. From 1909 up until at least 1916, the dark eyes and hair of Betalo provided the perfect focal point for Henri’s explorations into color. Henri’s 1909 Salome remains for many the pinnacle of his career, or at least of his dancer and dancing works, but he continued to move past the colorful drama of that work and seek out new combinations. Unlike Degas, perhaps the most obsessive painter of dancers ever, Henri always paints the dancer as an individual rather than as a type. Degas’ dancers are beautiful in design, but you never feel that they are alive. In contrast, Henri’s Betalo the Dancer (above, from 1910) almost vibrates with life. The vigorous brushwork gives the sensation of movement, as if Betalo herself were suddenly caught unaware by our entrance and just turned to face the viewer.
Betalo proved to be an ideal model for exotic dress. Her athletic dancer’s physique and pretty face enhanced the exoticism of the costumes in works such as Dancer of Dehli and Dramatic Dancer, both done in 1916. In that same year of 1916, Henri painted Betalo several times in the nude. In the version above, Henri surrounds the pale-skinned, dark colored beauty with blues, grays, and whites. Like Whistler in works such as Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Little Blue Girl (1898), Henri approaches abstraction in the composition of pure color compliments and contrasts but remains in the figurative tradition through the centering theme of the nude. Betalo must have seemed like a godsend of a model to Henri in her amazing versatility. A living, breathing example of chiaroscuro, Betalo exuded the drama around which Henri could experiment in color with full freedom. Betalo’s natural grace in motion comes across in Henri’s ability to paint her lounging but simultaneously raising herself slightly from the couch, as if anticipation of something or someone.
In the painting of Betalo nude above, also from 1916, Henri surrounds his private dancer with pinks and greens. As with the blue-gray nude above, the colors around her become echoed in her pale skin. Just as the dancing costumes clothed her in other paintings, the colors around Betalo “clothe” her in these nude paintings. There’s also that same sense of movement in Betalo’s reclining pose, as if she’s right at the moment of lifting herself into a new position. I doubt Betalo could hold such a suspended pose for long, but Henri tried to work quickly to get a sense of the essence of the moment. “Do it all in one sitting if you can,” Henri said of capturing the spirit of a model. “In one minute if you can. There is no virtue in delaying." For Henri, speed and movement were more virtuous than meticulous detail. Henri’s nude paintings of Betalo Rubino and other women around 1915 and 1916 present them as vital, alive, confident women rather than passive objects receiving the artist’s gaze. For many feminist critics, female nudes represent the repressive patriarchy of art history. I agree for the most part. However, Robert Henri’s nudes express rather than repress the fullness of womanhood and present the private dancer to the public eye in all her glory.